Mars, The Next Frontier?

As one of our inner solar system neighbours, Mars can be seen from Earth with the naked eye. The Red Planet is considered a candidate for holding scientific clues to our solar system’s past. Not only that, but Mars has long carried an air of mystery, having possibly carried life and liquid water in its distant past. The issue has always been getting to Mars to find out.

The cosmos is vast and is mostly inhospitable. Just within our solar system, only one of 8 planets currently has natural conditions capable of sustaining any form of life.

Bas Lansdorp founded Mars One, the Netherlands based space exploration organization,in 2011 and acts as the Chief Executive Officer. With this not for profit institution, Lansdorp plans on challenging the current scientific perception of our solar system.

Mars One’s operational mission is to build a permanent settlement on Mars. This project plans to establish human and plant life, on the Red Planet and serve as an international exploration venture by permanently colonizing Mars.

Being a non-profit organization, Mars One has received donations in order for the project to get off the ground. Their website indicates that they have received over $700,000 worldwide from online donations, merchandise sales and their recently completed crowd funding campaign.

When the project was announced, Landsdorp opened applications to the international public for 40 available astronaut positions. Through Mars One’s selection process, they have steadily been determining their ideal astronaut candidates. Apparently 200,000 individuals applied to be astronauts at the start of this project. Through their selection process they are down to their final 100 candidates.

Deep-space travel is even more daunting than Columbus’s venture to North America. This type of long-term project requires extensive funding along with complicated technological and scientific planning.

Mars One has vital human requirements to consider along with the costs of constructing space ships and carrying cargo. Human necessities such as water, food, shelter, oxygen, medical equipment must all be brought to the Red Planet. Such transport ships require fuel, regular maintenance, testing and efficient and advanced safety systems. According to the Mars One team, “After discussion with potential suppliers for each component and close examination, Mars One estimates the cost of putting the first four people on Mars at six billion dollars.”

There is still plenty of funding required to be able to support this project financially. At the time of this article’s release, Canada was second largest contributing nation, tallying $86,000+ in donations.

To sustain the life of astronauts, materials must be transported to Mars from Earth prior to human arrival. Following the transport costs, much of this cost estimate is consumed by the training and analysis of the personnel.

The potential technological suppliers of Mars One include aerospace companies such as Paragon Space Development, ILC Dover, MDA Corporation, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd and Lockhead Martin.

In order to train for the conditions of Mars, psychological tests must be administered and the candidates must complete an 8 year training program  to be ready for the challenges of deep space exploration. Mars is known for having a cold and harsh climate. Currently, Mars One is stationing candidates in remote areas of the United States in an effort to replicate, as best as possible, the unsympathetic conditions of life on Mars.

Prior to 2027, the estimated year to begin human missions, Mars One plans on transporting required cargo and automated devices to Mars. This initial process is expected to take less than a decade, starting in about 2020 and extending until 2027. The focus of these launches is establishing communication satellites and transporting vital cargo such as food items and shelters. These initial launches are pivotal to determining the specific location of the human settlement and creating a habitable environment for the astronauts arrival.

After supplies have been delivered, the manned mission begins. The 8 to 9 month journey in 2027 would carry the first four pioneers to their new permanent home, Mars. Following the arrival of the first group, the selected candidates would then be transported in groups of four every two years, but this schedule is tentative and delays are very possible.

Scientists agree, space exploration is an example of high-risk with the potential of high-reward. Mars One acknowledges thismission’s hazardsand compares them with thedangers of climbers summiting Mount Everest.

Being able to land humans on Mars would be an incredible achievement never before seen in exploration. The cultural and scientific impact of NASA’s Apollo missions, as well as the world’s first satellite the Russian ‘Sputnik’, are well documented. However our outer atmosphere, and our moon are much closer than Mars. The moon is 384,400 kilometres away from Earth while Mars is a staggering distance of approximately 225,300,000 kilometres away.

The Mars One mission is also a one-way ticket, something humans have never attempted in the cosmos.

Mars One represents a polarizing undertaking that will certainly have fans and critics.

On one hand, the scientific prospects are unparalleled. This project has the potential to be the greatest scientific accomplishment in human history.

The prospective of humans artificially establishing life on another planet is incomparable. This accomplishment could usher our species into a whole new age of deep-space exploration and lead us towards research concepts never before considered. Only a 7 minute delay would exist in the transfer of electronic information from Mars to Earth. In nearly real time discoveries and scientific communications would be retrievable.

Then there is the global cultural impact. People from all over the world could look up into the night sky and know that life exists in the further reaches of the cosmos, because humans put it there.

On the other hand, space and Mars represent hazardous environments, with minimal room for error.

There are sceptics of this project. Famous Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield, claims that, “We absolutely need to do it on the moon for a few generations,” prior to colonizing Mars.  NASA recently launched astronaut Scott Kelly into space for a year stay in the International Space Station. Kelly’s mission is aimed at gathering research for a possible NASA mission to Mars in the 2030’s, which is expected to happen about a decade after Mars One’s planned colonization.

According to NASA, attempting to launch a manned mission to Mars in the next decade is unrealistic on the scientific level. As of right now, NASA astronauts are generally placed within the International Space Station for a maximum of 6 months. The lack of gravity coupled with long stays isolate in space leave astronauts suffering issues of bone density loss, reduced muscle tissues and physiological changes. Mars’s gravity is less than half as strong as Earth’s. This could pose a legitimate physical risk for any future colonizers.

There are also ethical questions about the colonization of Mars.

Is it appropriate to leave individuals there with limited supplies and no option to return home? Could any “unknowns” quickly sabotage the mission? Mars’s terrain is frequently ravaged by dangerous sand storms and there is always the possibility of meteor impact. Surface temperatures fall far below 0 degrees Fahrenheit on the Red Planet, leaving the astronauts in conditions only survivable with specialized equipment and artificial shelter. Is placing an individual into that climate on a permanent basis morally acceptable with current technologies?

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology wrote a 2014 article detailing issues with the Mars One project. Their team suggests that with current technologies, the first astronaut would suffocate within 68 days of landing on the planet due to the lack of sufficient oxygen generation. If life support technology fails at any point, if colony members fall ill or become injured, or if a natural disaster occurs, the colonizers would certainly be out of the range of any immediate emergency rescue.

This begs the question, what if Mars One is short lived and carries vital materials, technology and matter to Mars, but ultimately within 3 months of being inhabitedthe settlement is found to be unsustainable? We currently do not have the means to retrieve the materials.

Space is an endless realm of discovery, and Lansdorp declares that, “Human settlement of Mars is the next giant leap for humankind. Exploring the solar system as a united humanity will bring us all closer together.”

There may be supporters and criticizers of Mars One’s endeavours, but humans travelling to the Red Planet is not just a possibility, it is a likelihood in the near future. Many scientists agree that within one or two generations  human feet could  touch down on Martian soil.

The questions then become, when is it truly safe and realistic to land humans on Mars? When can we accurately determine that the scientific benefits convincingly outweigh the potential for disaster? Lastly, will Mars One even take-off?

The hard truth about this kind of demanding exploration is that perhapswe won’t know until we try.